There is a lot of randomness in baseball, and it can make it seem like certain trends exist when they do not. For example, split stats at home and away (with the exception of Colorado and oddly shaped parks like Yankee Stadium and Fenway), by days of the week, by night/day and other arbitrary distinctions are generally not different because of talent.
While for some reason, the old school MLB commentators love to cite these stats, they generally normalize after time. With that as a starting point, I’d love to know if there’s a reason the Indians are 9th in runs scored in the Majors and a run differential of almost 100, yet are ten games above .500 when they should be 20 according to the Pythagorean run theory and only two games ahead of a team that should be .500 according to that same theory.
A teams expected or Pythagorean record is derived from a simple formula [RS²/(RS²+RA²)] and is generally a pretty good indicator of what a team’s record will be. Currently 17 of 30 teams are within 2 wins of their expected record and every team is within five wins except the Yankees, who have under-performed by six games, and the Padres, who have over-performed by eight. This is a number that should normalize as the season goes on and by the end of the year, with the exception of a few cases.
First, a team can beat their expected record by having an outstanding bullpen and winning more 1 or 2 run games than would normally be expected. They can also under-perform by blowing out teams when they win, while often losing by a single run. It is the latter that seems to be the issue with the 2017 Indians.
To start, the Indians have averaged 4.9 runs per game this year (all stats through July 31st), but the way they got there has been weird. Below is the breakdown of number of games the Indians have scored each amount.
You would expect with 4.9 runs per game, that the Indians would have a lot of games with four, five or six runs scored, and they do. However, they have just as many games with one, two or three runs scored as they do four and more than they have five or six. At the same time, they’ve scored 11 or more runs 11 times including a 15 spot against Texas.
At the same time, the Indians have allowed 3.9 runs per game. With such a stingy pitching staff (and defense), they should generally be winning whenever they score five or more and that is the case as seen below.
Incredibly, they’ve went 26-0 when scoring at least eight and 34-2 when scoring at least six (until August 1st, when they lost while scoring ten against Boston). What the Pythagorean record doesn’t expect from a team with a run differential near 100 to do, however, is play 19 games while scoring one or fewer runs and they have lost all but one of those games. Pulling out games with three through six runs scored, the Indians have had 32 extremely low scoring games and 30 extremely high, going 4-28 when scoring two or fewer and 29-1 when scoring seven or more.
Considering only these games from now on, the first thing the old school might look at would be time of year. Maybe they went on a hot streak at some point or the injuries to players like Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis severely depleted the offense. That doesn’t appear to be the case.
|# of Games||April||May||June||July|
This makes sense as momentum equals force times acceleration and has nothing to do with baseball performance beyond the physics of the game itself. The next obvious place to look is for opponents, but again there seems to be no direct correlation.
The teams they have played the most (Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota), they have had the most high and low scoring games against, but the distribution has been as even as possible. If it was a team wide dynamic pitching staff and defense keeping the scoring low, it would show here.
Of course, the baseball saying goes “momentum only lasts as long as the next day’s starter” and if there is any reason beyond random variance for this extreme amount of either incredibly high or incredibly low scoring games, it should be found within the pitchers they have faced. Below are the best 20 and worst 20 starts against the Indians this season.
|Best Starts vs CLE||IP||RA||Worst Starts vs CLE||IP||RA|
|Jason Vargas||9||0||Francisco Liriano||2||7|
|Sean Manaea||7||1||Jesse Chavez||2.1||7|
|Jose Berrios||7.2||1||Hector Santiago||2.2||6|
|Ervin Santana||7||0||Chase De Jong||2.2||6|
|Sonny Gray||6||0||Joe Musgrove||3||7|
|Derek Holland||6||0||Justin Verlander||3.1||7|
|Daniel Norris||6||0||Justin Verlander||4||9|
|Jason Vargas||6||0||Phil Hughes||3.1||6|
|Marcus Stroman||7.2||1||Adam Wilk||3.1||6|
|Scott Feldman||6||1||Nik Turley||4.2||8|
|Tyson Ross||6||1||Rich Hill||4||7|
|Zack Greinke||6.2||1||Cole Hamels||4.1||7|
|Jason Hammel||6||1||Jordan Zimmermann||3||5|
|Carlos Rodon||6.2||1||Sonny Gray||4.2||7|
|Derek Holland||6||1||Dinelson Lamet||4||6|
|Patrick Corbin||6||0||Danny Duffy||4||6|
|Kyle Freeland||6.1||1||Derek Holland||4.1||6|
|Daniel Norris||6||1||Dylan Bundy||4.1||6|
|Ervin Santana||6||0||Chris Archer||5||7|
|Ty Blach||7||1||Amir Garrett||5||7|
Again, there is some cross variance here as Holland appears on both sides of the ledger and Verlander would have if I went to 25. That being said, there are some pitchers who appear multiple times on the left, particularly when the list is expanded to 50. In the central, they have struggled against Matt Boyd, Jason Hammel, Derek Holland, Daniel Norris, Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas. Outside, they have had particularly bad games against Sean Manaea and Marcus Stroman. Of these, only Stroman, Santana and Hammel are right handed.
However, the answer isn’t simply that the Indians can’t hit left handed pitching. They have a 106 wRC+ this year against all left handers, the fifth best mark in all of baseball and identical to their mark against right handed pitching. While they didn’t face him until Tuesday in 2017, against Chris Sale, the premier lefty in the AL, the Indians have scored 50 runs in 110.2 innings for a 4.07 ERA prior to 2017. It isn’t just the side of the pitcher, but more than that. It also isn’t directly pitch speed as there are a few pitchers of every type on both sides.
|Career||Vs Everyone||Vs Cleveland|
Possibly the most confounding of all pitchers the Indians struggle with are those who have generally been terrible for a very long time. While both Santana and Vargas are having surprisingly great seasons, they have owned the Indians for years without apparent reason. While most of the Indians odd run scoring variance can probably be chalked up to randomness, their struggles against these two pitchers compared to how the rest of the league has fared have existed long enough to probably be legitimate.
There was never going to be any definite answer to the question in the subject, there are a few positives that can be taken from this. First, most of the problem pitchers won’t be a factor in the post season. The youngest, like Rodon, Manaea and Norris remain with their non-competitive franchises as do Santana, Stroman and Holland. Second, the Indians have only one complete game shut out against them this year.
While they have been shut out six times as mentioned earlier, only Vargas has went the distance and in most instances, the starter hasn’t lasted past the sixth. This is because the Indians are an extremely patient team, in fact the best in baseball at avoiding swinging at pitches outside of the zone (just 26%, the Royals are the worst at 34%). By working the count and getting the starter’s pitch count up, they’ve actually won a few of those games marked as the best starter appearances, taking out the bullpen after the starter’s early removal. This is a talent that should work against nearly every pitcher and should help normalize those numbers over the long term.
Only time will tell if things will even out, but as it stands, due to the blow out nature of so many of the Indians wins, their Pythagorean win record and run differential are both a bit misleading. Until that evens out, it’s hard to say that the Indians should be 20 games above .500 or more than a couple ahead of Kansas City.